Tag Archives: women

Cultural studies in a flurry.

I once read a definition of culture as “everything people make and do.” That’s the one I’m working from for this post, in which I want to briefly touch on many odds and ends that interest me about India, but which I don’t have time to research or think about extensively.

One writer said that India is so diverse in its history and culture that it is more like 60+ countries than it is a unified nation. I think that is one reason that I was really glad to have limits on my explorations. How can one person deal with that breadth of possibilities? I would rather have depth of knowledge about a few things, or lacking that, just more time being exposed to a type of food, or the sound of a neighborhood, or day after day chatting with a native.

It was a treat to be in India when Republic Day was being celebrated last month, and to watch the parade in Delhi on TV with Kate and Tom. The most colorful and impressive aspects of Indian culture and tradition were on display for the international guests sitting in the stands and anyone who tuned in.

I had never seen motorcycle stunt riders before, but they are a huge thing in the Indian Army, and we enjoyed their performance. Women teams performed as well that day, and since then I’ve read about how the Indians have set records for various motorcycle stunts like most men riding a motorcycle (58) and longest ride standing up, etc. On my first day in Mumbai, you may remember that the things that first caught my attention were the trees and the motorcycles. I haven’t stopped wondering.

On our road trip when I was riding in the back of the car and watching traffic behind me, I had the chance to do a lot of people-on-motorcycles-watching. One young family was riding down the freeway at 50 or 60 miles per hour and when I first saw them, the wife looked especially pretty in her colorful sari, because she was smiling so happily as she rode sidesaddle behind her husband. The whole family was obviously carefree and enjoying their ride, a five-year-old boy sitting in front of his smiling father. The father was wearing a helmet.

At least in some places in India, there are laws that say the driver of the motorcycle must wear a helmet. Kate knows this, because when they were in Goa they rented a bike and the rental company gave Tom a helmet because it was the law that he must wear one. Kate wanted a helmet as well, but the shop didn’t have enough for anyone but drivers.

Since I heard that story I’ve been noticing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone other than a driver wearing a helmet, and often not the driver. Many women in traditional kurtas with scarves around their heads and sometimes faces will ride solo, and they don’t usually wear a helmet.

It seemed like dozens of marching bands streamed past in the Republic Day parade, and my favorite by far was this group from the Oxford Foundation School in Delhi, who changed my life in a minute, turning me into a woman who would do anything to get a pair of velvet Indian salwar pants in that exact shade of green!

Truly, if I were staying only a week longer, I might have bought a sari to wear to a wedding the family will attend. Indian weddings are huge and lavish affairs — one important expectation is that you invite everyone who is in your life in the remotest way. If you work for a large company, you invite everyone in the company, for example.

“We” received an expected invitation to Tom’s co-worker’s Hindu wedding, delivered to the door, a portfolio sort of presentation, accompanied by a shiny box holding a family-sized confection called a ladoo. We cut it into six wedges and finished it off for dessert that night, savoring its indescribable subtle flavors which we think included rose and fennel.

Since then we’ve shopped for the proper wedding attire for the whole family – you need one sort of outfit for the morning part of the event, and another for the evening.

Indian families normally don’t take their babies out until they are six months old, so we haven’t found formal wedding wear that Raj doesn’t swim in. He may have to go a little casual. Kate has a sari now, and another sort of Indian dress; she is very hopeful that they will get more wedding invitations during their stay here so she can make further use of these traditional and fancy outfits. Tom is making do without a pair of elf-like shoes that the sharpest dressers to wear to weddings.

The book Reimagining India that I’ve been browsing has a whole section devoted to Culture and Soft Power, in which various writers treat subjects like Bollywood, Indian food and restaurants, and the mindset of the privileged middle class. One of the writers was at the time of the book’s publication the reigning world chess champion, and he wrote an article on “Making Chess India’s Game.”

I don’t even play chess, but I liked his story, and found this paragraph helpful in my “studies”:

One of the things I bring to my play is my Indian identity — my ability to shrug off a loss as destiny and hope for a better tomorrow. I am often described as a “natural” or “intuitive” player. I agree there is something to that. I learned to play chess at high speed. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai, where I began playing chess, we used to play “blitz” — the shortest format of chess in which players use a timer and neither is allowed more than five minutes of total playing time. We embraced blitz to make playing fun; the club was crowded, and blitz was the best way to ensure that the maximum number of players got time on the board. The winner stayed and the loser had to go back in queue. It made the evening more exciting. We all loved it. I learned to play fast, without agonizing about strategy or overanalyzing individual moves. Maybe this is a form of Indian ingenuity: making the most of a situation in which there isn’t much structure.

~Viswanathan Anand 

It just now occurs to me that my India studies have been fast and intense in a similar way. Like the traffic flow on the city streets, it looks chaotic, but under the circumstances it’s the most efficient way to go. I can’t afford to stay here any longer — I would become hopelessly immersed in the Indian jumble, only coming up for air long enough to type a few feeble words on my laptop.

This is not my photo, but I did see many women carrying water in similar containers. People carry all kinds of bundles and baskets of things on their heads in India. Kate and I discussed the weight of water if the containers held three gallons each: two containers = 48 pounds. I hope they only hold two gallons, in which it would impress a mere 32 pounds on each head.

In India, I have seen men sleeping in public every time I go out, often in shops, and I imagine they are workers on break; everyone stays up late here, so they need a nap. But what do I know? Maybe they are drug dealers who work at night and sleep in their uncle’s shop in the day.

India is labor-rich. Kate and Tom explained to me that an economy is either rich in labor or in capital, and in India it is definitely labor. A rule of thumb is that if there is a job you expect one person to do in the U.S., four Indians will be doing it here, because they are available, and machines and technology are not as abundant so they are relatively expensive.

This can be a bit disconcerting when you shop, and two to four store staff hover about, not just waiting to help you but asking you to look at one thing after another you don’t want. In restaurants you have very attentive waiters, often standing a few feet away from your table watching to be sure they don’t miss a cue that you might need something. And just generally, people, people everywhere, walking and riding their motorbikes and carrying things.

Several months ago Kate had told me that many Indians have stopped using the all-purpose “Namaste” for every greeting, because a phrase like “Good morning,” for example, is more specific and useful, and they like it.

It also is essential for the latest fad that was pretty much started by Indians of my age group, a trend that caught the attention of Google and which you may have heard about because of that. As older people started getting hooked up to the Internet, they discovered the joys of wishing all their friends “Good morning!” about eight o’clock every day, by means of image-rich text messages. These texts were using up Indians’ digital storage three times faster than average and causing their smartphones to freeze up.

“Perhaps India’s most famous morning-message enthusiast is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He gets up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga and is known to fire off good-morning messages as the sun is rising. Last year, he admonished a group of lawmakers for not responding to his greetings.”

My son-in-law has been getting these kinds of texts from his Indian coworkers and has jumped on the bandwagon himself. I don’t have any Indian friends who might send me a cheery Good Morning message, but I figure some of you are still in the early part of the day as you read this, so I asked Tom to send an example in my direction. This way I can share a little upbeat and current Indian culture with you my readers and at the same time wish you my best. I hope that in the next several hours, morning or not, your life is rich but not chaotic. And if you ride a motorcycle, please wear a helmet!

Peony

I am so blessed to have met the appealing character of Peony in Pearl S. Buck’s novel about Jews in China. It seems that as early as the 8th century Jewish traders settled in China and their tribe increased through the centuries. Buck thoroughly researched their history and includes many authentic details in this story that tells about their community in the city of K’aifeng in the northern province of Honan. She gives a short intro and timeline of the Jewish presence in China in a preface, and my Kindle edition includes an afterword by Wendy R. Abraham with a thorough history up to about 1990.

The events take place in the middle of the 19th century. At this time the last rabbi died and the Jews were in the final stages of being assimilated into the Chinese culture. One big reason can be summed up in this question that several of the characters ask themselves: “…here [in China], where all are friends to us and receive us eagerly into their blood, what is the reward for remaining apart?”

The story is told from the point of view of the Chinese bondmaid Peony, who belongs to a Jewish household and for her own survival uses all her resources to promote this abandonment of her owners’ practice of their Jewish lifestyle. She and the Young Master of the household grew up as playmates and good friends, and now that they have come of age she works to turn his heart away from the faith that has been passed down from his parents. That may sound bad, but she is honestly playing her part in this drama in which each one tries to follow the most prudent path he can, while at the same time honoring his elders. From the distance of time or in a novel we can see a broad view, but when you are thrust into a role with no script, you can only do your best.

The substance of the Jewish faith portrayed in the novel is somewhat vague. Other than the goals of “remaining separate” and remembering their history, any tenets of faith mentioned were ideas the Chinese neighbors could and did easily agree with. An example of this is in a synagogue mentioned in the story, on whose stones are written “‘The Temple of Purity and Truth,’ and beneath the words are carved the history of the Jews and their Way, and it is there said, ‘The Way has no form or figure, but is made in the image of the Way of Heaven, which is above.'”

The name of the temple is factual, and if the confusing statement about The Way comes from Pearl Buck’s imagination, it is probably based on the truth of what it is like to try to live out a faith tradition that is more history than reality. This experience is certainly not foreign to many moderns.

I don’t know when I last read such a wonderful work of fiction. It was a page-turner because I could not at all imagine how the plot would flow. The setting in China was the primary strange aspect for me; I don’t think I’ve read any of Buck’s other works set in that country and I’ve been fairly incurious about Asia generally. But recent exposure to the writings of Lin Yutang has made the history and culture of China seem much more accessible and intriguing, and prepared me to enter into this tale.

Peony is a young Chinese girl whose depiction I fully trust, because Pearl S. Buck grew up in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and was immersed in that world. She returned as an adult and wrote many books about China and its people, including the most famous one, The Good Earth. Lin Yutang himself was a friend of hers and they seem to have encouraged each other in their writing.

Peony was sold by her mother to the family whom she serves; she has no one else but them in the world. So she sees that it is in her interest to be the very best servant she can be, and she truly loves not only the Young Master but his parents. About the Young Master she thinks, “His heart was centered in himself, and so must hers be centered in him.”

Her love for the family increases as the years go by, even as they come to depend on her in countless ways. That’s o.k., because she always tries to make things work out for their health and welfare. Her own happiness must be found in the context of disappointment, and in relationship with people who take her for granted.

When she is still fairly young she asks the older servant a philosophical question:

Was life sad or happy? She did not mean her life or any one life, but life itself— was it sad or happy? If she but had the answer to that first question, Peony thought, then she would have her guide. If life could and should be happy, if to be alive itself was good, then why should she not try for everything that could be hers? But if, when all was won, life itself was sad, then she must content herself with what she had.

“You cannot be happy until you understand that life is sad,” Wang Ma declared. “See me, Little Sister! What dreams I made and how I hoped before I knew that life is sad! After I understood this truth I made no more dreams. I hoped no more. Now I am often happy, because some good things come to me. Expecting nothing, I am glad for anything.”

Getting to know Peony and watching how she matures over the years was pure pleasure. She has good sense and character even as a teenager, and as she responds to the sometimes cataclysmic changes in the household her competence and wisdom grow, often through struggling to overcome her own desires and heartache. Through her we get an idea of how the Jewish religious practices might have appeared to the Chinese, and she also epitomizes many of the best qualities of the Chinese and their outlook on life that I was only recently reading about in Lin Yutang’s books.

For me the Jewish characters in the story were also unpredictable, though they are well-drawn and believable. They are people of their particular time and place, most of them already a unique blend of the Chinese and Hebrew. The patriarch of the family is of mixed-blood, having had the “consolation” of “a rosy, warm little Chinese mother.” This image is contrasted with his own wife who is almost single-handedly trying to preserve their religious tradition, and who causes a Jewish friend to muse, “For a woman to love God too much was not well, he now told himself. She must not love God more than man, for then she made herself man’s conscience, and he was the pursued.”

This theme of women and their power is another element of the story that fascinated me, being myself a woman with power. Of the only son David we read,

His mother, Leah, Peony, Kueilan, these four women who had somehow between them shaped his life were shaping him still. He longed to be free of them all, and yet he knew that no man is ever free of the women who have made him what he is. He sighed and tossed and wished for the day when he could return to the shops and the men there who had nothing to do with his heart and his soul.

In the end it is Peony who has the best and sweetest sort of influence. Her conversation with the father when she is giving him a foot-rub:

Peony knew his thoughts. Nevertheless, she asked, “Why do you sigh, Master?” “Because I do not know what is right,” Ezra replied. She laughed softly at this. “You are always talking of right and wrong,” she said. Now she was pressing the soles of his feet. They were hard and broad, but supple. She went on in her cheerful way. “Yet what is right except that which makes happiness and what is wrong except that which makes sorrow?” “You speak so because you are not confused between Heaven and earth,” he said. “I know I belong to earth,” she said simply.

I’ve tried not to spoil the story by telling too much. One review I read ahead of time said something about the ending being sad, but I didn’t find it so. We find Peony considering her life and that of the people she has served, and wondering if she had been wrong to have a part in closing the book on the Jewish tradition in her city. In keeping with her outlook on life and religion, she concludes that it’s all o.k.:

Long she pondered, and as often happened to her in her great age, the answer came to her. She had not done wrong, for nothing was lost. “Nothing is lost,” she repeated. “[The Jew] lives again and again, among our people,” she mused. “Where there is a bolder brow, a brighter eye, there is one like him; where a voice sings most clearly, there is one; where a line is drawn most cleverly to make a picture clear, a carving strong, there is one; where a statesman stands most honorable, a judge most just, there is one; where a scholar is most learned, there is one; where a woman is both beautiful and wise, there is one. Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows, and when the frame is gone, its very dust enriches the still kindly soil.”

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My gleanings include rubbish and pies.

I guess I’ve had enough time and thinking power this week to read and ponder, but my activities didn’t result in anything of my own to posit or report, so I’ll just pass on some recent gleanings.

Women Priests?  I love it when a reviewer is bold enough to say “This book is rubbish.” Honesty and confidence! Although, if that’s all she can say, she won’t get a hearing; I want to hear reasons for her belief. I just read this blog post titled “Merlin Stone’s book is rubbish”, and though I had never heard the author’s name before I immediately wanted to read that article.

It’s a brief review of  When God Was a Woman, which the blogger first had to read in seminary years ago. She writes, “There is neither historical nor anthropological support for her thesis that the Hebrews suppressed goddess worship. She tries to prove that the Canaanites had a matriarchial and matrilineal structure. She is wrong on both counts.” Go to the blog Just Genesis to read the supporting details. The writer always has lots of fascinating historical and archeological knowledge to pass on.

Pies, pies, pies... Three women collaborated on a book, which as soon as I read about it I had to have sent as a birthday gift for my granddaughter. It may be a bit early for her, but I like to encourage little girls to start taking a creative role in the kitchen and to look to real grownups for inspiration.

The book is Pieography, written by Jo Packham, Food Styling by Anne Marie Klaske, Photography by Traci Thorson. All of these women have blogs; Jo and Traci feature photos of some pies, but I think you have to get the book if you want the recipes and stories.

I haven’t seen the book yet, but I’ve enjoyed Anne Marie’s blog in particular. The clean and elegant style is nice to surf around in and see snippets of the Klaske Family’s farm life. On Thursdays you can get inspired to bake pies!

Death of the Old Man:  Father Stephen Freeman shared a link to his daughter’s blog, on St. John of the Cross and the loss of identity, or the Dark Night of the Soul, or the “death of the old man.” Actually the subtitle of the post is “The Loss and Discovery of our Identity in God” (italics mine), so it ends on a very positive note, to be sure.

She writes, “If we had always thought of the death of our old man as purely symbolic, it may come as something of a shock to think of real pain being involved. But when our turn inevitably comes to go through pain or tragedy, then we may take comfort in knowing that many have travelled down this path before us.”

Icons and Images:  A book on the history of the use and theology of images in Jewish culture and in the church is the subject of this blog post on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge. Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images is written by Stephen Bigham, and a series of four blog posts is planned to review the book. This structure follows the organization of the book:

The book is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the “hostility theory” which holds that the early Christians were hostile toward images. Chapter 2 deals with early Jewish attitudes toward images. Chapter 3 deals with the early Christian attitudes towards images, that is, the pre-Constantinian period. Chapter 4 deals with Eusebius of Caesarea who witnessed the beginning of Constantinian era.

The author is an Orthodox priest, and the blogger Robert Arakaki was Reformed in his theology before converting to Orthodoxy. I’m looking forward to reading all the reviews of what looks to be a thorough treatment of the subject.

Beethoven in Space:  Lastly, here’s a music video featuring Hubble images and beautiful music. A blessed weekend to you all!

 

May the pots never grow cold.

About 30 years ago we owned a modular house whose many large windows were covered by the original fancy draperies, so that when the curtains were closed they covered most of the expanse of three walls with nubby gold curves. The walls were thin particle board painted to look like wood, as you can see in the photo – but I didn’t mind those as much as the drapes. I would have preferred something more rustic and casual and of another color to go with the country setting, but even if we’d had the money we couldn’t have justified spending it to replace Perfectly Good high-quality drapes.

It was a recurring temptation to me, though, to stew over how ugly and Not Me they were. This was tiresome, and eventually my better self convinced my offended self to stop, using this argument:

What is your purpose in life? To love God and be useful to Him.

What is the most important way for you to do that? To love people.

Do you need pretty and tasteful drapes in order to love people? No, I answered. If someone who comes to my house sees my drapes and not me, I can’t help that. If they need my hospitality and friendship they need it from me personally, and God will just have to use me in spite of this ugliness in the room. (Which of course was not a universally recognized ugliness anyway.)

Those of us who have read any of Edith Schaeffer’s other books know that she by her life and words demonstrated the importance of love and hospitality. Her book The Hidden Art of Homemaking, which is the subject of a book club hosted at Ordo Amoris, I do not take as contrary to the rest of her life and work, but complementary to it. Some of you may not have read the other books like What is a Family? Partly from reading it I am pretty sure that if she had to choose, she would herself rather have been a resident or guest in a plain and even ugly house run by a warmhearted woman than in an artistically decorated dwelling with an unkind or angry soul. We’ve all heard of and perhaps had the experience of going into a house where the decor was shabby or messy but you wanted to be there because it felt like home — welcoming and nurturing. Mother Teresa’s saying fits here: “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.”

I think Edith’s own houses were like this, because she was that kind of woman, and likely much more than I myself am. But I have it as a vision to be like that, and am inspired by quotes that speak of a woman being able to make a home wherever she finds herself, of a woman herself being the heart of her home….but I can’t find any of those at the moment. The line that has intrigued me for years now is from the Santana song “You’ve Got to Change Your Evil Ways,” from the perspective of a man who is dismayed by his woman who’s gadding about all the time:

When I come home, Baby,
My house is dark and my pots are cold.

These are just signs to the poet that there is no woman at home to welcome him.  The verse reminds me of advice I read to housewives who haven’t figured out what to make for dinner, but who want to do something to give their husbands a good feeling when they come in the door after work: While you are getting your act together put an onion in the oven to bake so that he will get a hopeful olfactory signal.

A message I get here: A woman conveys her love and hospitality by these simple modifications to the environment: opening the drapes or turning on the lights, cooking something in the kitchen, and in both ways warming up the sensory atmosphere. If she has a kiss and a smile for her family and guests all the better.

The last few years when my husband and I live here alone, I notice that I am the one who thinks about light control. In that photo above you can see all the light that came into the humble house with the gold drapes. It was the best feature of the house, as I was later to discover, when I wanted our new house to have as much light — it was not to be. The photo was likely taken in the winter, when we would open the drapes wide and let in all the warming sun.

In our area we can get along pretty well in summertime without air conditioning, if we manage the windows and window coverings: At night open all the windows to let the cool air in; in the morning close everything up to shut out the sun’s rays, and leave them that way (and the house kind of dark!) until the air inside gets as warm as outdoors — then you may as well get any breeze that might stir, and be ready for the coolness to enter as soon as it arrives.

In Spring or Fall our present house doesn’t get very hot, so in the mornings I like to open the blinds and let the sun in as soon as I come downstairs — but my man never thinks of doing this. For my mind, sunlight is the very loveliest decoration. And at night, I like to close the curtains or blinds so as to feel sheltered against the world. This also seems to be, in my experience, a homemaker’s impulse.

I have learned to do many artful things in my houses over the decades; I have arranged and painted furniture, swept the floor, bought bedspreads and embroidered Bible verses to hang on walls that I painted, but those things aren’t more important than the light-monitoring I do. I also tend the fire in the stove, and light candles, and keep the pots warm.

While you’re working on the outward appearance of your home, attend also to your heart and keep it warm with prayer. If the family members are getting snappy or sulky, take a prayer break together and ask God’s help – then sing something to warm up the atmosphere. I like this quote that Debbie posted, by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

Let’s be cheerful! We have no more right to steal the brightness out of the day for our own family than we have to steal the purse of a stranger. Let us be as careful that our homes are furnished with pleasant & happy thoughts as we are that the rugs are the right color and texture and the furniture comfortable and beautiful.

Thank God for making Edith Schaeffer the kind of woman who could pass on to us a bright homemaking heritage.